To design responsive websites effectively and responsibly, I had to completely redefine the way I view the web.
It pains me to admit it, but I wasn’t too keen on responsive web design right out of the box. Weeks after Ethan’s ALA article, I even briefly entertained the idea of writing a post haranguing the practice, nit-picking concerns on how using media queries to relocate elements on a page could disorient users, but I knew deep down I was full of it. My short-lived adverse reaction wasn’t rooted in any specific limitation of the responsive approach itself, but in my inclination to cling to the way I had always perceived (and built for) the web.
That perception had solidified over 10 years of making websites in a particular way. Pages were wire-framed, then fleshed out in Photoshop, which was where, for the most part, design ended. HTML & CSS were merely used to execute the prescribed layout. I took comfort in that approach, particularly in the control I had with a rigid grid and a perfectly pressed pixel-based structure. What you saw in the comp was what you got on the web. Bada Bing.
To think about the web responsively is to think in proportions, not pixels.
That approach, however, only works for a single view, a concept quickly becoming a thing of the past. Mobile browsing has exploded, and tablets (along with a slew of other devices of varying size) have confirmed the web’s status as a moving target. The choice was before me: retain the control in my original approach but accept that I’d be designing three or five or ten layouts, or redefine the way I think about the web. I found that to think about the web responsively is to think in proportions, not pixels. I traded the control I had in Photoshop for a new kind of control—using flexible grids, flexible images, and media queries to build not a page, but a network of content that can be rearranged at any screen size to best convey a message. Web pages (not that the term ever fit perfectly) aren’t really what we’re building anymore.
Did I forsake Photoshop? No. Reagan and I still start designing with a wide, desktop-sized view, but it means something very different to our process. It’s a starting place, and once we’re going, Photoshop is ultimately used for asset building (textures, photos, etc.). The largest and most exciting part of the design process now happens in the browser.
Did I dismiss hierarchy? No, but “squishy” was the unflattering term I initially used to describe responsive sites. For me, websites take on an increasingly familiar skeletal form as I mentally map content in proportion to specific areas. When working with clients that’s how we address content. Elements are sized & placed purposefully to create order. I was worried that fluid content would have no visual impact and spinelessly reflow, breaking the established hierarchy. However, I soon found that didn’t have to be the case. While working on our first few responsive projects at Paravel, we used fluid-width images, videos, and even text headlines when appropriate, along with proper planning (content choreography) to maintain strong visual presence. The hierarchy, and thus the message, can be preserved at any view.
In the process I discovered, to my great relief, that I didn’t have to throw away my design sensibilities to ‘go responsive’; instead, I could develop techniques to incorporate design elements I gravitate towards (like interesting typographic arrangements or full-width images) in a responsive way. My stubborn unwillingness to abandon those sensibilities has made these initial steps into responsive web design worthwhile. It’s gratifying to use the things that might have kept me from adopting a responsive approach as inspiration to innovate.
If there’s anything I’ve had to learn the hard way through all of this, it’s that responsive web design isn’t bolt-on. Whereas progressive enhancements (like border-radius), or web fonts can easily be added and removed from a site, responsive (for me at least) has required a complete redefinition of how I approach my craft down to the pixel. The more I learn & adapt, the more certain I am that this is the best way to build for the web. The process of adopting a responsive approach has made me better at my job, and I’m thankful for that.